Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Flags, 'Flegs' and Celtic FC

The symbolism of the Irish flag which flies over Celtic Park is clear. This is a club proud of is heritage and determined not to forget the sacrifices and vision of the founding fathers. That being said, Celtic is equally proud of being a Scottish club with fans from all walks of life.  Early newspaper reports refer to Celtic as the ‘Irishmen’ as most of their team or fans were Irish of first generation Scottish-Irish. The green flag with the gold harp which flew from the stadium in the early days was replaced in time by the flag of the newly independent Ireland. It flew proudly above the old Jungle for years without causing a stir until a series of trouble filled Old Firm games in the late 40s and early 50s brought the flag to the centre of attention. Old Firm games after the war were feisty affairs and much of the crowd were either drunk or had alcohol with them. ‘Bottle showers’ were not uncommon after dubious refereeing decisions or goals scored by the opposition. Segregation was voluntary and the ‘hot heads’ mustered behind each goal while the saner souls would stand nearer or even beside opposition fans. Events at the New Year’s fixture of 1952 brought things to a head. In a game marked by the usual poor Refereeing, Celtic losing and fights on the terraces, the authorities decided to act.

The SFA, following pressure from the Glasgow Magistrates and Police, laid out its plan to curtail such Hooliganism. This included making games all ticket, not allowing entry to drunk fans and crucially clubs were to…

Refrain from displaying in its park any flag or emblem that had no association with the country or the sport.”

There was no doubting what the SFA Refereeing Committee were referring to here. The tricolour had to go. Bob Kelly, Celtic Chairman, pointed out that there had been problems at Ibrox and Hampden when the Old Firm met and no tricolour flew at those grounds. There was no mercy however, Celtic were given a deadline to get the flag down or face penalties which could include suspension from the league.  Bob Kelly spoke eloquently at the SFA and fought Celtic’s corner with guts and considerable passion. ‘Tell me what rule we have broken?’ he demanded. They could not as none of the Articles of Association had been broken but still they would not relent. Kelly was clear, Celtic would not take the flag down and if it meant being thrown out of the league then so be it. One must remember the context of the times when talking about such events. Belfast Celtic had left the scene in 1949 after a vicious assault on their players by Linfield fans who invaded the field. Several players were badly hurt including one, Jones, who had his leg broken by the mob. In fairness, Linfield FC, slated the thugs and apologised profusely. Many see this violence as not the fault of Linfield FC but of the RUC who appeared uninterested in protecting the Belfast Celtic players. It is ironic that the player most badly injured in the violence, Jones, was a Protestant. In Scotland anti Catholic prejudice was more pronounced than it is today. As Celtic were threatened with expulsion over the tricolour, not a word was mentioned about Rangers block on Catholic players. In a land where many employers behaved in that way it barely entered anyone’s head to criticise it. In the end the group wishing to pressure Celtic began to lose support as Chairmen pondered the financial costs of losing one of the best supported clubs in the league. Kelly held his nerve and the Committee lost a vital vote as clubs, including Rangers, saw reason and sided with Celtic. The ‘Great Flag Flutter’ was over. Celtic had been vindicated and the narrow minded bigots made to look foolish. There would be no repeat of the Belfast Celtic story in Glasgow. Those Hoops were here to stay. Although, it is interesting to speculate what would have happened in 1952 if Kelly had decided that enough was enough and applied to join the English league? Celtic’s history may have been vastly different if that had occurred.

Postscript: Flags and symbols can still stir passions in the minds of some. Those of you watching rioting Loyalists causing mayhem in Belfast over the decision of the council there to only fly the Union flag on designated days will know that such a mentality is nothing new. The mindset which demands its symbols and flags be respected while simultaneously seeking to ensure those of other groups are not is as old as time. These are people who demand their flag be flown and respected yet think nothing of burning the flag of others on their bonfires. There is a clear link between the mindset of men who wanted Celtic out of Scottish Football in the early 1950s and those who trash Belfast because they cannot accept a democratically agreed decision to only fly the union flag on set days over City Hall. That mindset is best summed up in the slogan of a bygone age; ‘We are the People.’  Well, things have changed now and all of the groups in our society rightly say , ‘Hold on, we’re the people too.’ 

The days of the ‘Croppies’ lying down are long gone.


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